STEPHANIE O'NEILL, HOST:
There's no doubt about it. The ability to focus your attention on important tasks is vital, and that's true whether you're a student, a retiree, a worker, a captain of industry or an unencumbered free spirit.
SRINI PILLAY: We have to focus so we can get stuff done.
O'NEILL: Dr. Srini Pillay is a psychiatrist and author who studies the brain.
PILLAY: If you're not focused, you feel scattered throughout the day. And you feel like you can't concentrate, and it actually makes you feel not good about yourself. In fact, some studies have shown that not being able to focus can also predispose to depression and anxiety.
O'NEILL: But too much focus isn't good either because it exhausts your brain. What we need, Pillay says, is a balance between focus and unfocus. And finding that sweet spot is what we'll be talking about in this episode of LIFE KIT. I'm Stephanie O'Neill, a regular NPR contributor, here with a guide on how to focus in an era of constant distractions. And heads-up, this episode is not about how to become a hyperefficient machine. Instead, it's about a more holistic approach to getting things done without depleting yourself.
If you're like me, you often find yourself pulled in different directions by the seemingly endless barrage of technology chiming through your smartphone. There's the texting we do with friends, co-workers and family. There's the social media alerts that ping their presence 24/7. There's the urgent emails that pop into our inbox.
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O'NEILL: It can feel overwhelming at times. I'm based in California, and I enjoy getting outside to hike and ride my horses. But it's gotten to the point where I'm always on my phone. I make calls. I respond to emails. I text. I listen to the news, all of it causing me to miss the connection to nature. And instead of feeling rejuvenated, I often feel lethargic and exhausted at the end of a busy day. And I'm not alone, says University of California, Irvine professor Gloria Mark. She teaches in the department of informatics, where she studies human and technology interactions. Mark's quick to point out that while engaging in such busywork might feel like productive multitasking, it's really not. What's happening instead is that our brains are switching between each task, which requires more brain fuel than staying with one task at a time.
GLORIA MARK: Every activity we do uses a different set of cognitive resources. If I do email, I'm using one set of cognitive resources. If I'm reading a report, I'm using a different set of resources. So continually switching attention back and forth also means switching the set of cognitive resources that we're using.
O'NEILL: To be sure, not every additional activity you take on during your workday leads you to brain-fry. If it's, say, a signature or taking a moment to feed your cat - stuff that takes minimal mental energy and time to complete - no problem, she says. But if you're working on a project and you have to stop to respond to an email or to talk to a colleague who swings by for a chat, that comes at a price. And before I go on, let me just say that Mark says it's not just external interruptions that mess with our flow.
MARK: Nearly half the time, we are interrupted by something inside of ourselves. And this could be due to some memory that I suddenly have, or I'm looking at something on my screen and there's a cue there that triggers some other thought or triggers a reminder that I have to send an email. So, you know, we are constantly interrupting ourselves nearly as often as we're getting interrupted by external things.
O'NEILL: People who primarily work on computers, once interrupted, need about 25 minutes to shift their brain back to the flow of the original task. That finding comes from a 2005 study where Mark observed 24 workers whose primary task is dealing with information. A 2008 study Mark and colleagues published found interrupted university students who performed an email task in a simulated office environment were forced to work faster and to hyperfocus in order to compensate for interruptions. With less time to finish their projects, they reported much higher stress and frustration as compared to the uninterrupted group in the study. Professor Mark says we get stressed out because our brains just aren't wired for excessive focusing.
MARK: You can't do it for an extended period of time in the same way you can't ride a bike uphill for an extended period of time. You need a break for a while. You need to coast and get your energy back up.
O'NEILL: Dr. Pillay agrees. Yet most people, he says...
PILLAY: They live their lives with focus, focus, focus, fatigue. Like, you wouldn't drive cross-country without refueling your car. But why do we feel like we can just go through the entire day and really just constantly focus, focus, focus and not refuel our brains?
O'NEILL: Pillay says pushing to maintain hardcore focus can leave us with impaired decision-making and can make us more impulsive. He says something else is needed, and that something is unfocus, a somewhat counterintuitive concept he touts in his 2017 book "Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock The Power Of The Unfocused Mind."
PILLAY: I believe that without these unfocused times, we're taking away from ourselves our capacity to discover, really, our hidden intelligence.
O'NEILL: Which leads us to takeaway one - learn to unfocus your brain. Now, of course, focus is essential to important work. You can't get anything done without staying on task. But Pillay says the research suggests the brain does its best work when it toggles between focus and unfocus. That's because when we unfocus, we activate a brain circuit called the default mode network. This is where the brain recasts our memories and experiences in the context of past, present and future. And, Pillay says, popping in and out of this part of our mind throughout the workday helps to promote, among other things, innovation, creativity and better decision-making.
PILLAY: It will allow you to see what's going on around you. It will allow you to see upcoming trends. It will allow you to innovate by connecting things, and it will also allow you to feel more deeply self-connected.
O'NEILL: Some of the activities that help you do this include taking a nap or taking a walk outside. The goal, Pillay says, is to be able to unfocus at will. In takeaway two, we look at another way to do it; engage in positive constructive daydreaming. Despite the clunky terminology, this is a pretty fun activity. Essentially, it's a purposeful form of mind-wandering or imaginative play, and doing it can fast-track us into the creative default mode network, Pillay says. The concept comes from psychologist Jerome Singer, who began researching it in the 1950s.
PILLAY: And what Singer found was that if you sit at your desk and you just let your mind wander, that's not helpful. But if you do something low-key - you set aside 20 minutes. You do something low-key like knitting, gardening or walking, and then you let your mind go and just wander. This can actually make you more creative and can restore brain energy as well.
O'NEILL: As you engage in a low-key activity of your choice - be it walking, knitting, gardening - have fun, Pillay says. Travel with your mind to someplace enjoyable. Maybe it's a stroll through an imaginary forest or a relaxing day on a warm sandy beach. Then unleash your mind, and let it wander freely. By activating the default mode network, we provide the brain a way to find and access information that's different than how the focused mind does it. Using a silverware metaphor, Pillay says, if you imagine the focused mind having only a fork to retrieve information, the unfocused mind has the whole silverware drawer and more.
PILLAY: It invites a spoon for the delicious melange of flavors of your identity. It also invites chopsticks by making connections across the brain, a toothpick to be able to go into the nooks and crannies and find these memories that can actually be really essential components of problems that we want to solve.
O'NEILL: Ideally, Pillay says, try to engage in constructive positive daydreaming three times during each workday, especially when you're doing high-focus work like studying, writing, computer coding or complex problem-solving. So now it's time to sit down and focus. So how do you get the most out of it? Takeaway three - find ways to block interruptions when you're doing deep work - pretty basic but super-important when you want to do a deep dive into focus, says Professor Mark. By shutting off distracting interruptions, our brains get a chance to complete full sentences of thought. Turn off text messaging, notifications and social media alerts.
MARK: So the important thing is to change your environment. So, you know, I'm not going to check news as easily if the browser windows are closed for these different news sites. So change your environment so that it creates friction for you to go to those sites, right? That makes it harder to self-interrupt.
O'NEILL: If your work requires you to be connected throughout the day, consider scheduling technology check-ins every 45 minutes to an hour to allow you to work uninterrupted. Or when you need to concentrate on a task, set an automatic email response to let those trying to reach you know that you're unavailable for a prescribed time. And, Mark says, keep Post-its at your workstation. A notebook or a dry-erase board works too. Then when you remember something that needs doing - picking up milk or replying to a friend - quickly jot it down so your mind doesn't get sidetracked and mired in the minutiae, then return to your work.
Now onto takeaway four - know your chronobiology, which essentially is a fancy way of saying get familiar with your own body clock. Mark says working on your most important projects when your brain is at its best boosts productivity and well-being. And that means you want to know, are you a morning person who focuses best before noon, or are you more of the night owl?
MARK: So get to know what your peak focus is, and schedule your work around that peak focus.
O'NEILL: If your workday involves a variety of activities, some easy, some hard, resist doing all the mindless tasks on your to-do list before getting to the real work of the day. Instead, mix it up, Mark says, and intersperse those less-taxing activities between periods of sustained focus.
MARK: It's fine to do these short tasks because they give you a short-term gratification, but you don't want to only do these kinds of short tasks, you know, because you'll end up procrastinating and not doing the longer, more focused kind of work that needs to be done.
O'NEILL: When your energy is low, a quick nap of about 10 to 20 minutes can rejuvenate you and help you stay on task. If you can't do that, consider using this time to do some of the day's lightweight chores, like running errands or doing a load of laundry. When possible, use this time to take a break and have some fun, which leads us to takeaway five - try new hobbies. Pillay says dabbling in new activities, even those completely unrelated to our work or to a problem we're trying to solve, often provides us with innovative solutions. The exact science behind it isn't clear, but it goes back to allowing the mind to wander without the leash of focus tugging on it.
PILLAY: Sometimes, we hit a wall, and we get stuck in a rut of thinking. What dabbling does is that it just gives the brain a temporary relief. And then suddenly, your brain starts to make connections as well.
O'NEILL: Engaging in a fun activity like an interesting new hobby, he says, is important because it activates your mind in a different way than honed focus and work do.
PILLAY: What I say to people is your intelligence is strongly dependent on as many parts of you being activated at the same time.
O'NEILL: That type of brain activation requires sustained time away from devices so that you can create space to focus on your analog life, and that leads to our last takeaway. Consider a digital Sabbath. There's a lot of talk these days about the benefits of shutting off your devices and for good reason. Taking a digital Sabbath - intentionally setting aside time to rest from your screens and all their interruptions - does a few important things, Mark says.
MARK: It can help people see that there's a world beyond the screen. It can help them reset and think about what's really important, which might be relationships in real life or nature or, you know, things other than just what we're seeing on that screen.
O'NEILL: So I've been taking that to heart recently, and I've been doing an experiment where, when I go to visit my horses at the barn, I leave my cellphone in my truck. Instead of greeting Cooper and Lilly with earbuds tuned to news or a phone call, I'm back to focusing on them, and we chat.
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O'NEILL: Hi, guys.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE WHINNYING)
O'NEILL: How are you doing?
(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE WHINNYING)
O'NEILL: Want your treats?
(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE WHINNYING)
O'NEILL: And then we go on a technology-free trail ride that's fun, relaxing and grounding. And while I can't be sure, I think Cooper and Lilly also are enjoying these rides a lot more.
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O'NEILL: Takeaway one - unfocus your brain. Schedule into every workday some breaks from all that focusing, and allow your mind to travel into the default mode network for a bit of freestyle riffing. This network of brain circuitry is where the magic happens. It's the place where our minds find innovation, creativity and often make better decisions than the focused mind. You can get there yourself with something called positive constructive daydreaming, which leads us to takeaway two - engage in positive constructive daydreaming. Travel in your mind on a 20-minute adventure during your workday, and watch what happens. Doing so, especially when working hard on a project, will help to open up the brain's default mode network. Doing this several times a day can offer your mind a fresh approach to the job at hand.
Takeaway three - block interruptions before diving into deep work. Turn off text messaging, notifications and social media alerts - pretty basic, sure, but vital when you want a deep dive into focus. By shutting off distracting interruptions, our brains get a chance to complete full sentences of thought. Your important work benefits when you shut off or put away your phone and other screens. Then plan a time to respond after you've completed a period of sustained focus.
Takeaway four - know your chronobiology. Make friends with your body clock. Are you a lark who's sharp and alert in the morning, or is night owl more your style? Either way, it doesn't matter as long as you schedule your most important projects during your brain's periods of peak performance.
Takeaway five - try new hobbies. Dabbling in hobbies is not only fun. It can actually help us come up with new solutions to problems we're facing at work or home. Allowing your mind time to play is another way to invite innovation in ways that focusing doesn't.
And takeaway six - consider a digital Sabbath. There's a lot of talk these days about the benefits of shutting off your devices and for good reason. Taking a digital Sabbath - intentionally setting aside time to rest from your screens and all their interruptions - offers an important benefit. It reminds us there's a world outside of our screens, helping us reset and think about what's really important.
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O'NEILL: For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. I've hosted one about how to forgive someone and another on how to deal with grief. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. And now a completely random tip, this time from listener Rosa Sijben (ph).
ROSA SIJBEN: Whenever you have a USB stick or an external hard drive, change the name of that device to your phone number. It has helped me to find back mine whenever I lost it because people put it into their computers and then see immediately how to reach you.
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O'NEILL: This episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo, and our editorial assistant is Clare Marie Schneider. This episode was fact-checked by Audrey Nguyen and Meghan Keane. The notification sounds heard at the top came from Sonic Dictionary and the Hello KAPA and Daw Daw (ph) YouTube channels. Whinnying courtesy of Cooper and Lilly. I'm Stephanie O'Neill. Thanks for listening.
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